On February 1, 1933 — exactly 84 years ago today — Adolf Hitler delivered his first speech as Chancellor of Germany. That address is significant for a number of reasons beyond its anniversary.
After President Donald Trump’s inauguration, a number of prominent news sources ran comparisons between his speech and that of past presidents, noting that most had focused their addresses on themes of hope (“Yes we can…”), self-sacrifice (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”). Trump, on the other hand, focused on darker imagery and nationalistic themes.
The point of many of the comparison stories was that President Trump’s inaugural address veered from historical trends. Looking back a bit farther back, however — and across the Atlantic Ocean — shows that our newly inaugurated president’s speech was neither unique nor new. It was simply unique in modern American history.
Preserved for their historical relevance, Hitler’s speeches are widely available, in reliable translation, in libraries and in web-based sources. Progressives have been making comparisons between Trump and Hitler since the early days of the 2016 presidential campaign. But not all supremacist language takes us back to Nazi Germany; 21st century racism is abhorrent in its own right. So I invite your independent comparison of that 1933 radio address with the one offered at President Trump’s inauguration. The parallels in both structure and rhetoric are stark. Lest these comparisons seem hyperbolic, I include direct quotes from each address.
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To begin with, each address alludes to a golden time in the nation’s history that must be restored. Each also seeks to locate blame with those responsible for struggles of the people (for whom both Trump and Hitler claim to speak).
President Trump: “For too long, a small group in our nation's capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost . ... Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed. … Their triumphs have not been your triumphs and, while they celebrated in our nation's capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.”
Chancellor Hitler: “More than 14 years have passed since the unhappy day when the German people, blinded by promises from foes at home and abroad, lost touch with honor and freedom, thereby losing all…”
Next, both Trump and Hitler conjure dismal imagery. This, as many news sources pointed out, was what so starkly differed between Trump’s inaugural speech and his predecessors’. But this tactic packs a powerful rhetorical punch; exaggerating the failures of past government inspires those who feel envious, resentful, downtrodden to trust in the exercise of power who would restore the days of prosper and plenty.
President Trump: “Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation… and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.”
Chancellor Hitler: “The misery of our people is horrible to behold! Millions of the industrial proletariat are unemployed and starving; the whole of the middle class and the small artisans have been impoverished.”
Throughout both speeches, both Trump and Hitler call on God’s blessing for their righteous causes. Some were surprised at the language of Trump’s inaugural address, which was more overtly religious than is typical for him. Of course, neither speech is interfaith: it is clear whose God is invoked (and which religions are not welcome at the table).
President Trump: “When America is united, America is totally unstoppable. There should be no fear. We are protected and we will always be protected. … we will be protected by God.”
Chancellor Hitler: “The national government will regard it as its first and foremost duty to revive in the nation the spirit of unity and cooperation. It will preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built. It regards Christianity as the foundation of our national morality, and the family as the basis of national life....”
Perhaps most widely discussed in Donald Trump’s inaugural speech are the nationalist and populist themes. Trump calls this “Americanism.” We have seen this before. Structurally, these themes pervade each address.
President Trump: “We share one heart, one home and one glorious destiny….”
Chancellor Hitler: “But we are all filled with unbounded confidence for we believe in our people and their imperishable virtues. Every class and every individual must help us to found the new Reich.”
Appealing to the faith of the people and pledging commitment to a common cause, both Trump and Hitler close with strong statements of populist purpose and national unity.
President Trump: “Together we will make America strong again. We will make America wealthy again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And, yes, together, we will make America great again. Thank you. God bless you and God bless America. Thank you. God bless America.”
Chancellor Hitler: “Now, people of Germany, give us four years and then pass judgment upon us. … May God Almighty give our work his blessing, strengthen our purpose, and endow us with wisdom and the trust of our people, for we are fighting not for ourselves but for Germany.”
And so we have structural similarities, similar language, similar themes. Content aside, both speeches employ brilliant tactics for rallying believers to a cause and for unifying “the people” — Hitler called them “Volk” — behind broad exercise of power. Hitler delivered far more dangerous speeches, and Trump has more addresses yet to come. But the way each man chose to introduce himself as a new world leader is telling — and tellingly parallel.
Am I suggesting, with this comparison, that President Trump is the next Fuhrer and the United States is destined for another Holocaust and World War III? No. In addition to our separation of powers, we have seen organized resistance concerning efforts of the new administration. Last weekend’s marches demonstrated peaceful vigilance against authoritarian policies and xenophobic rhetoric. But must we continue to learn from the past and read the warning signs as we see them? Yes. Jawohl.
Sarah Gerwig-Moore is associate professor of law at Mercer University in Macon. She teaches Law & Literature and a number of clinical and professional formation classes.